Giving Together: Introduction to tzedakah Collectives

It is well known that our Torah text compels us to give to the poor and also provides specific mechanism such as peah and tithing to assure that giving occurs in a way that allows accessibility to sustenance. The collections of offerings for the Temple to support both the economically vulnerable and the Levites laid the groundwork for what became a sophisticated rabbinic system for collection and distribution of funds. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides offers the following explanation:

In every city where Israelites reside, the inhabitants must appoint from among themselves well-known and trustworthy persons to act as charity collectors who collect for people every Friday. They should demand for each person what is proper for that person to give or what that person has been assessed for: and should distribute the money every Friday, giving each poor person enough for seven days. This is what is called the kuppah. (Mishneh Torah, 9:1-3)

In addition to the kuppah, the tamchui was a daily collection of food and coins as a voluntary offering. The tamchui was to fulfill the needs of a poor individual for a single day. Access to the kuppah and tamchui was dependant on the individual's need and how long the individual dwelled in the town. While other systems were established to provide clothing, education, temporary housing and proper burial, wealth was not used to alter the economic realities or address the root causes of poverty. Using communal funds to create systemic change is a more modern idea, one with capacity to transform our world.

Communal funds can make a big impact while giving donors some autonomy. Trends indicate that today's donors do not want to give up their involvement in where their gift is spent, as is indicated by the increase in targeted giving and the decreased commitment to organizations that pool gifts. On the other hand, individuals do not have the time to research all the possible recipients of their contributions, and many hope to cause a greater impact than their own donation can make. Giving circles, also called tzedakah Collectives, are a method of collaborative contribution and distribution that address these concerns. Members of these groups offer a certain contribution and work together to direct the gifts to the appropriate recipient, based on shared values and established criteria.

Benefits and Challenges of tzedakah Collectives

A giving circle, often called a tzedakah Collective in Jewish settings is a group that decides to combine charitable funds and distribute the collected funds to recipient organizations that fit the group's qualifications. While talking about tzedakah might not be a popular Saturday night activity, discussing values and visions for a better world can help create lasting social connections. Even when the social component is not the goal, the impact of a certain quantity of money can be far greater when it is combined with other contributions into a substantial gift, grant or loan.

The following are several benefits and challenges of collective giving:

BENEFITS
INFORMED GIVING
Participation in a tzedakah collective requires some knowledge of issues and agencies that address social concerns. Frequently, members of the group will conduct research and propose particular recipient organizations based on this investigation. Also, giving circles are often addressed specifically by worthwhile agencies within their range of interests. The method of divide and conquer allows members to gain valuable insights on many organizations without having to do all the leg work themselves.

POWER
According to the wisdom of community organizing, power comes form organized people and organized money. A tzedakah collective creates power and the ability to make change above and beyond the strengths of the individuals, by organizing funds that can make a significant impact towards a particular goal.

SOCIAL CONNECTION
Participation in a giving circle can provide a meaningful connection within a community of people based on shared values and the desire to make change. Giving circles can be composed of individuals who already socialize together: this provides an opportunity to deepen the relationships

ROLE MODELING
Parents often have difficulty talking about their philanthropic activities with their children. However, when children know that adults get together to discuss how to direct charitable giving, the idea of communal obligation enters their radar screens in a detectable way. Helping children to create their own tzedakah circles involves them in examining issues of injustice at an early age. Either with their allowance or supplemented by adult gifts, when children are empowered to make choices, they begin to develop a sense of civic responsibility.

CHALLENGES
TIME CONSUMING
Sending checks in response to solicitations and giving online when an e-mail includes a link has a significant advantage- its quick. If the goal of giving is to assuage guilt and unload a certain percentage of income on non-profit organizations, then the saved time is worthwhile. However, time spent researching potential recipients allows the donor to make smart choices that maximize impact, and become more connected to the cause.

COLLECTIVE DECISION
Without making the joke about two Jews having three opinions, it must be mentioned that coming to consensus can be exhausting. When creating the protocol of the tzedakah collective, majority rule can prevent gridlock. It is essential that all members are prepared for their contribution to be directed to an organization that is not their first choice: the value of participation can far outweigh this cost.

POTENTIAL CLASHES
The last thing you want to do is get in a fight with friends over doing a good deed together. For that reason, some causes may be 'off the table' for ideological reasons when the parameters are established. Groups should initially discuss issues that can be inflammatory and agree to disagree when core values conflict. Such potential hot-button issues could be: family planning clinics, agricultural aid organizations that have negative environmental impacts, or Jewish institutions with controversial ideologies or methods. It is essential to set limits early.

EXEMPLARS OF tzedakah Collectives

HEKDESH
The Dorot Fellow Network established an exemplary model of a tzedakah collective, The Dorot Fellowship is a leadership program for American Jewish lay leaders, supporting a year of learning opportunities in Israel. The alumni of the program initiated communal a communal giving group called HEKDESH, setting up guidelines and methods for collecting and distributing funds. The name HEKDESH references the giving that was sanctified to the Temple, making the contribution solely for the purpose of the Temple cult.

The required annual contribution to HEKDESH is $180 and a commitment to participate in the nomination and voting process. According their literature, they are a diverse community with a wide range of interests, yet decisions are collective and consensus giving based.

The following is a link to the group's blog, which includes their issue areas and nominated recipients: http://hekdesh.blogspot.com/

NATAN FUND
Natan is more than a tzedakah collective, it is a community of like-minded young people who seek to support 'effective and compelling' Jewish organizations. According to the website, it is a philanthropic network of young Jews seeking to help transform the Jewish future by funding solutions to address crucial questions in Jewish life. Incubated by the foundation world, Natan has a diverse membership and funds one professional position. Meaning 'to give', NATAN also serves as a memorial to JJ Greenberg, whose Hebrew name was Natan.

The following is a link to the group's website, which includes the five program areas to which grants are given, and lists of the grantees both from the US and Israel: www.natan.org.

CONGREGATIONAL tzedakah Collectives
In the world of collective giving, some groups are created explicitly for the purpose of gathering and distributing funds. However, one can look to synagogue members as potential participants in a tzedakah collective. In June of 2001, the Reform Movement offered a press release asking synagogue members to donate their tax rebate checks into tzedakah Collectives. The stated purpose of this project was to, "pool money together to have a greater impact and disburse these funds to worthy organizations and causes."

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism created a 26 page Guide to Synagogue tzedakah Collectives outlining necessary steps including the establishment of financial systems, governance and text studies and lessons to support the project. The PDF can be downloaded from the organization's website: http://rac.org/pubs/saresources/tzedakah/.

Information on tzedakah collective efforts by Temple Emanuel, Cherry Hill, NJ can be found in an article at the following site: http://resources.rj.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=1286.